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John Lichfield For Members

OPINION: France has stepped away from the far-right abyss, but into a political morass

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: France has stepped away from the far-right abyss, but into a political morass
France's Prime Minister Gabriel Attal will be leaving his post, but who will replace him is far from certain. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

As France comes to terms with the shock defeat of the far-right and the dawning of a new type of politics, John Lichfield looks at what will happen next and whether any of the warring political parties in France are likely to compromise.

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First of all, congratulations to the people of France.

The crushing rejection on Sunday of an incompetent, divisive, mendacious Far Right – for the third time in seven years – was not the machination of an establishment elite.

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella’s party was swept to an unlikely third place in the second round of parliamentary elections by a wave of popular revulsion. People voted tactically in their millions for politicians they disliked to defeat politicians that they detested.

Listen to John and the team from The Local discuss the latest election results in a special episode of the Talking France podcast. Download here or listen on the link below

 

The Republican Front, declared to be moribund or riddled with holes, proved far more effective than the politicians or pollsters had thought possible.

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As a result, France stepped away from the abyss of government by a racist, anti-European, pro-Russian and incoherent, populist-nationalist Right. Instead, it stumbled into a parliamentary impasse with three blocs of roughly equal size in the National Assembly: the Left alliance (182 seats), the Macronist centre (162 seats) and the Far Right Rassemblement National (143 seats).

What on earth happens now? France, unlike Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland or Germany, has no living memory of broad, political coalitions. It has a parliamentary culture of intransigence and insults, rather than compromise.

The hard left part of the Left alliance, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, says that it must pick the next Prime Minister because it won a few seats more than other left-wing parties in a Popular Front bloc, which itself contains less than one third of the 577 members of the Assembly. Mélenchon conveniently forgets that the Left, including the LFI, won many of those seats with the help of centrist voters.

The LFI, and the young leftists who celebrated “victory” in Paris last night, have a strange “first-past-the-post” idea of how parliaments work. In truth, Mélenchon knows that he has no chance of choosing the next PM or imposing his deficit-exploding, economic policies. He is stoking the case for the state of grievance on which he thrives.

The best chance of a stable, or even unstable, governing coalition would be an understanding between the more moderate parties of the Left, the Macron alliance and the re-invigorated Gaullist centre-right.

Spokespeople for the Socialists, Greens and Communists on Sunday night appeared to rule out any kind of deal with the Macronist centre. The centre-right ruled out any alliance with anyone.

Ça commence bien.

But the process is only just beginning. Macron’s Prime Minister Gabriel Attal has resigned but will probably have after-life of at least two months as caretaker PM until the new Assembly starts its first full session in September.

He and President Macron will seek exploratory talks with all forces in the lower house of parliament except the Far Right and possibly Mélenchon’s LFI. They will try to identify a potential Prime Minister and the outlines of a programme to address the genuine grievances of French people (high cost of living, low wages, struggling public services).  

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The moderate Left  - if it finally agrees to negotiate – will have to split with most of La France Insoumise. That is on the cards anyway. It will insist that it must have the next PM, even though without LFI, it will have a smaller bloc of deputies than Macron.

It will demand the reversal of last year’s pension reform (a no-no for the Centre), higher taxes on the rich and business, a hike in the minimum wage and greater spending on health and education.

It will also demand something else: that any Left-centre alliance (which might just have the numbers for a parliamentary majority) should NOT be an expanded Macron alliance.

They will demand that the new PM have full control over domestic policy and that Macron steps aside and focuses on international and defence policy (where the constitution gives him some direct powers).

Can Macron accept this? Very doubtful. But it will be the price of agreement on a coalition to prevent at least 12 months of paralysis until new parliamentary elections are possible in July next year.

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The great flash-points in any coalition negotiations will be the 2025 state budget and France’s pledge to reduce its deficit of 5.1 percent of GDP to 3 percent by 2027. The other, more immediate flash-point, will be the choice of a PM.

The moderate Left will want to promote one of its own, fair enough. But any deal will depend on whether they can choose a man or woman acceptable to Macron and the Macron troops in the Assembly.  

In sum, a deal will depend on two or three impossible or near-impossible things.

First, that Emmanuel Macron accepts that he is one of the big losers in this election, not a winner just because he forced the French people to disavow the Rassemblement National.

Second, that the moderate Left splits with the LFI and accepts that it must compromise (filthy word) and drop the most deficit-exploding parts of the New Popular Front’s programme.

Third, that Macron and the Centre accept that some parts of the Left programme – such as tax rises on the rich, more public spending, a higher minimum wage – must be accepted and somehow sold to Brussels and financial markets.

Good luck, everyone.

For a few days let's savour while we can the rout of Lepennism and Barsdellism. The pretence of the Rassemblement National to be a professional, moderate party ready to govern was exploded in this lightning election campaign.

We should thank Emmanuel Macron for that. He must now accept that Macronism pur et dur is over. A new government - if any government can be agreed at all - must steer cautiously and without misplaced triumphalism to the Left.

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